Online harassment can come in the form of online bullying, trolling, cyber stalking, defamation, public shaming and hate speech. Online violence is in itself a pandemic that affects several individuals and while both men and women are targets of online harassment, the way in which it takes place is different. Women with voices and influence are the main targets for online harassment and this forces women to stand down and stay silent which works in favour of the abuser. Online violence for women quickly takes a turn to sexualized hate and threats which exposes the gaps in gender equality within our society.
The steps being taken by Plan International Malawi towards ending online harassment are necessary as women should not have to be silenced simply because certain individuals do not agree with what is being said. We should be free to post content without the fear of being judged and scrutinized, we should be allowed to be who we are without being subjected to social patriarchal norms, without being told that we are not enough or that we are too much. Women are continuously sexualized and have therefore been forced to shrink themselves and we are constantly questioning ourselves how far is too far before we are told that we are dressed or are behaving seductively and therefore deserve to be harassed. Public awareness is imperative, some individuals do not feel that online harassment is a serious crime and barely understand the long lasting effects that it inflicts. It also important for women to be aware of the “Restrict” anti-bullying tool which is available to everyone in order to avoid feeling like we have to be pushed off of social platforms.
The initiative to stop online harassment will protect girls from being subjected to explicit messages and cyber stalking, especially in low income countries like Malawi. Women live in fear of the threats posed to them online and so online harassment does not end at you simply switching off a device, it carries on into the lives of women offline. Cyberbullying and trolling leaves several individuals with insecurities and depleted levels of confidence so much so that girls are forced to alter the way that they express themselves to avoid being targets of cyberbullying. We all need to be protected by the social media companies whose platforms we use, reports of online harassment need to be taken seriously and there should be serious consequences that accompany online violence. We should not have to be forced to stay off social media simply because we are avoiding harassment, we should be allowed to express ourselves freely so long as we’re not inflicting any pain to other individuals as well. Social media should be a platform that allows freedom of speech that is not hate speech, the angle of being told to stay off the platforms if we can’t handle the backlash is unfair and works in favour of online abusers.